Singaporean in the running to be awarded ‘Nobel Prize for teachers’

Singaporean in the running to be awarded ‘Nobel Prize for teachers’
Undated photo of music teacher Philip Tan instructing his students. Photo: ACS International
He is among 50 finalists up for the US$1 million prize award
Published: 9:55 PM, December 14, 2016
Updated: 8:09 PM, December 15, 2016

SINGAPORE — For the second year running, a Singaporean teacher has been shortlisted for a teaching award dubbed the “Nobel Prize for teachers”.

Music teacher Philip Tan, 42, was shortlisted from more than 20,000 nominations and applications from around the world, and is among 50 finalists up for the US$1 million (S$1.4 million) Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

It is presented to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, and who uses innovative and effective instructional practices to add to the quality of education.

This is the third year of the award, which is judged by an international panel that includes public officials, head teachers, academics, journalists, entrepreneurs and scientists. In last year’s run, Dr Muhammad Nazir Amir from Greenview Primary School in Singapore was also shortlisted as one of the 50 finalists, but he decided not to be part of the competition before the top 10 was announced.

Mr Tan, the current Singapore finalist, was the creative director behind last year’s Asean Para Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, and started his career giving piano and music tuition at 15. He told TODAY that he received the news of the shortlisting on Wednesday (Dec 14), more than two months after he entered his bid with nominations from five of his former students in Singapore.

For 12 years, Mr Tan used to be the division head of visual and performing arts at St Francis Methodist School in Upper Bukit Timah, where his students were former school dropouts, from halfway houses or from other countries who had difficulties integrating into mainstream schools.

Right now, he is teaching at various institutions, including the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Republic Polytechnic, and Lasalle College of the Arts.

Should he win the award, Mr Tan hopes to use the prize money to fulfil his dream: To kickstart a state-of-the-art music studio here with a music-composition curriculum that brings together elements of learning and teaching programmes that he has designed over the years, supported by facilities such as a surround-sound recording studio that also has concert space for students to jam and co-create.

Mr Tan said that having this would help people of different profiles to hone their skills, given that music education in Singapore is “often considered as surplus to mainstream education, or only available to the privileged or talented”. “My mission is to close this gap by widening access to music education,” he said.

He would also like to put aside S$120,000 to create scholarships, of which S$20,000 would be used to fund the music endeavours of two selected students — one with physical or cognitive disabilities and another from a disadvantaged background — by helping them to produce portfolios for public showcase.

“I believe people just need teachers who believe in them,” he said.

The winner for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize will be announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 19 next year. The award’s past winners were Palestinian ex-refugee Hanan Al Hroub, who teaches refugee children about non-violence, and American educator Nancie Atwell, who authored nine books on teaching.


CLARIFICATION: In an earlier version of this article, we wrote that Mr Tan called St Francis Methodist School a “second-chance school”. He clarified that it was a “second-chance school” only during his tenure.